Cartagena & the Magical Catalyst of Mid-Life

Cartagena & the Magical Catalyst of Mid-Life

In Cartagena, this avid collector acquired the ultimate souvenir–a magic formula with life-altering properties.

Such a piece of ancient wisdom being revealed to me in a Colombian city associated with alchemy seemed especially apt. The key ingredient in this mystical recipe is actually an intuitive truth accessible to us all—sort of a secret hidden in plain sight. This brand of practical wizardry befits Cartagena, considered the birthplace of a literary style known as magical realism. And I had a rendezvous with a native who was willing to channel her knowledge to me.

Leaving our apartment on Calle del Campos Santos, just inside the massive fortified walls that enclose Cartegena’s ciudad amurallada or old city, my husband Tom and I were immediately enveloped by the thick, sticky humidity of the Caribbean coast. Accustomed to walking fast in a colder climate, the heavy air slowed our Yankee stride. It was a welcome change of pace, allowing us to absorb the everyday details of a city where the ordinary proved to be extraordinary.

Our accommodations were in Cartagena’s San Diego neighborhood, named for a convent that is now the Beaux Arts School Building. Nearing it, we heard the student orchestra tuning up, and as we walked by, the opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from “The Nutcracker Suite” wafted through the immense open windows above us. Tom and I grinned at each other and I thought “Let the magic begin!”

Nestled on the perimeter of San Diego Plaza is the Sofitel Santa Clara, a former 17th convent. Tom and I had a late lunch looking out at a courtyard where middle-aged clientele lounged around a pool; a toucan made the rounds, alighting on each deck chair to personally greet each guest. While the Santa Clara’s colonial architecture landed it on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, many Gabriel Garcia Marquez fans know the convent as the setting for one of his novels, “Of Love and Other Demons.” n the book, a rabid dog bites the ankle of 12-year-old Sierva María, whose father sends her to a Santa Clara cell to be exorcised.  The priest entrusted to save her soul falls in love with her, and a tale of intrigue, passion and religion ensues. Garcia Marquez credits the book’s inspiration to his stint as a cub reporter in Cartagena in 1949–in reporting on the excavation of the convent’s crypts, he witnesses the opening of a tomb in which the skeleton is wrapped in long copper tresses of living hair.

Continuing our exploration, we turned down Calle del Santisimo, a narrow crooked street lined with buildings painted in tropical colors, the peeling patina of their walls revealing smudges of past lives. Spilling street-ward from the structures’ second story balconies were luxuriant swaths of bougainvillea, dropping soft petals on the pavement and adding texture and an aromatic scent to the scene’s rich palette. The buildings’ facades featured massive wooden doors embellished with brass knockers in the shapes of slithering salamanders, open-mouthed fish and roaring lions.

In Plaza Santa Domingo, black women with wide smiles sold fruits I didn’t even know existed–bitter tree tomatoes, sweet green feijoas, tangy orange lulos, juicy white soursops, the deep purple mangostino. Known as palenqueras after their native town of Palenque, these entrepreneurs wear costumes even more colorful than their wares, which they transport in big bowls balanced on their heads.

Across the street, a big-bottomed Botero statue lounged on her side, her chubby cheeks mooning passers-by. Fernando Botero Angulo is a Colombian figurative artist whose style, called by some “Boterismo”, gives his pieces an unmistakable identity. Botero depicts his subjects with exaggerated and disproportionate voluptuousness that he himself simply referred to as “fat.” The over-the-top, larger-than-life imagery created by this self-proclaimed “most Colombian of Colombian artists” seemed perfectly in place oogling a cathedral from her horizontal perch across the street.

Tom and I walked atop the ramparts surrounding Cartagena–from our vantage point it appeared the ancient defensive walls demarcated two worlds—on the left, the fortifications seemed to contain a riot of colors and shapes, as if restraining the teeming huddle of gaudy buildings crowded together. On the right, the horizon line was strung with evenly-spaced modern spires of tall, cool glass along the strip of beach known as Bocagrande, a stretch of hi-rise developments originally constructed for foreign oil workers.

While with its sleek skyscrapers, Bocagrande is Cartagena’s newest neighborhood, Getsemani is its oldest. Just beyond the city walls and the Torre de Reloj (Clock Tower) Gate, past Teatro Cartagena and the Teatro Colon, sprawls the ancient streets of Getsemani. This area was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas. Plaza Trinidad is where Cartagena’s independence from Spain was declared on November 11, 1811. Today, homage is paid to heroes of the revolution with life-sized statues. We returned to this colorful enclave the next night for dinner at La Plaza de Macondo, a restaurant with fabulous food and vivid murals that depict scenes from Garcia Marquez’ book “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

After our enchanting stroll around Cartagena’s ancient heart, we approached Ábaco Libros y Café, where I was to meet Iliana Restrepo Hernandez, Director of the Internationalization Office at Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar. A native of Cartagena, Iliana has an affinity for all things literary and a special fondness for the Nobel Prize winner whose name is so often linked with the city. While I considered the venue for our conversation a fitting one, I found it was a practical choice for Iliana—she meets with her book club here every Wednesday evening.

Magical Encounter with a Cartagena Native

The book store cafe had an air of intimacy despite its high ceilings; the rows upon rows of books lining the walls muffled the conversations of patrons pouring over pages together. Iliana had ensured me she would be able to find me; I supposed my gringa heritage would make me easy to spot. Soon enough, a smiling woman made a beeline for me, greeting me with a kiss on my cheek, the warmth of her personality palpable.

“Our book club is a diverse group of about 30 people–different professions, different ages, women and men,” she told me as we settled in at a cozy table. “The only thing that unites us is literature. We are passionate about reading and writing. Every week we decide what to read for the next session.  One of us makes the presentation of the novel or poems and we discuss it. There are no obligations, if you didn’t have time to read you can still go and participate of the conversations.  It`s a very interesting way of getting together to talk about what we most love: literature. We say it is very well-organized chaos.”

Iliana began to tell me about the Cartagena she and García Márquez know and love.

“Cartagena is a very contradictory city with amazing contrasts but it’s magical,” she exclaimed. “And that’s why I think García Márquez got involved with this city. You know, he only lived here one year and in that year the city became part of his soul; he says that every one of his novels has threads of Cartagena in it. And it’s true–a character, a place, an anecdote, something. Two of his books occur here, “Love in the Times of Cholera,” and “Love and Other Demons.” In those novels Cartagena is everywhere.”

I asked Iliana what defined the literary genre García Márquez was credited with creating.

“A definition of magical realism is ‘when unlikely things take on the character of daily events and daily events are coated with the awe of the unbelievable,’ “she told me.

“Magical realism is something that actually happens every day,” she continued. “It’s a way of living. It’s a way of accepting things. García Márquez used those kinds of events and made literature from them. He put them in words and he created a universe, a special world where all of those things came together and made stories.”

Iliana told me how García Márquez served as the catalyst for bringing together different strands of her life.

“I joined the University as the director of the summer school,” she recalled. “At that time our team began thinking of different ways to attract international students to Cartagena. All my life I’ve been a reader. We realized that García Márquez is somebody who has a very strong link with Cartagena; a very strong link with the Caribbean region. As a recipient of a Nobel Prize in literature, and since his books have been translated to many languages, he is of interest to many people around the world.”

“We started working with Oscar Collazzos, a very well-known Colombian writer who became the academic director of a course that we designed about García Márquez that was called a “Journey through García Márquez Geography,” she said. “After that course I started thinking about how could establish a real and permanent link between Cartagena and his life and his work to share with many people. So we began research to establish the places in the city that were mentioned in his novels, the important places that made him so in love with Cartagena, and to create a tour of Cartagena as a way to get in touch with García Márquez’s work.”

“He has a brother that lives here,” she continued. “He’s a good friend, so he helped us a lot with anecdotes. Historians helped us as well. We researched for three years; it was very important work for me. Even though most people have read one of García Márquez’s books, if you come and get in touch with his stories in Cartagena, you want to read more. It’s a different way of seeing the city. Everything came together and it was marvelous.”

Iliana exuded an air of happy contentment and I asked her to tell me more about her earlier history, and the path that led her to this point.

“I have lived in Cartagena since 1978, something like that,” Iliana told me. “I was born here but was raised and went to school in Bogotá, the capital city. I went to Europe for a little while and then came back to Colombia, and got married, and started having children. Later I started working in different areas, including tourism.”

“When I was 50, an age in which you do lots of reviewing of your life, suddenly one night I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I started thinking,” she recalled. “I had something clear in my mind: nobody was going to help me feel better or do the things I have dreamed of. Nobody. I had to help myself. And I said to myself ‘If you don’t help yourself, if you don’t look for what you think makes you happy, nobody is going to do it for you.’ It was so clear. I remember that moment. I woke up my husband, and I said ‘Look, I’m going to start traveling in a different bus than the one that we are now. If you want to join me, great. If you don’t, I’m leaving alone.’”

“I wanted to start traveling,” she continued. “I wanted to start new things. I wanted to start studying. I wanted to start. He said ‘Study? You are 50.’ I said ‘Yes, and so what?’ He was not ready to go with me and my dreams. So I said so bye. I decided to get divorced. We were together 18 years, so it was a very hard decision.”

“I started working for my happiness,” she explained. “I think I had been happy but in a different way. There had been happiness outside of me. At that moment I understood that I had to work for my inside happiness. I started doing things that I had never thought were possible. I think people must realize that they have to look for happiness for themselves. Nobody is going to give it to you. Nobody. And sometimes you have to make hard decisions. Like, if you’re not happy, you have to close your eyes and say bye. It’s not easy.”

“It was so difficult,” Iliana remembered. “I had periods when I said ‘What have I done? What I’m going to do next? And is it worth it?’”

“But at some moment, all of my dreams started coming true–but only after I quit everything,” she said with a smile. “I got divorced, I quit my job. So I started. I started yoga. I continued reading–not books about how to heal this or that. No. No. Good literature, inspiring literature. Everything was in me and everything started coming together, like little stones that we’re putting here and here in a path in order to walk through them.”

“I started studying literature four years ago, and I got my degree last July–summa cum laude degree, I am very proud of it,” she exclaimed. “I love to read but I had never had the chance to study because I was working, raising my kids and doing other things. I got a new job, I met my current husband, who is a wonderful guy. He inspires me, he supports me. He is my Pygmalion.”

“I really think that the only obligation that you have in this world is to be happy,” she declared. “And that’s what I tell my kids. The only obligation you have to yourself is to be happy–but a real happiness not a temporary happiness, no?”

“So you must invest your money, if you have some money, in things that can be inside you–not outside,” Iliana said. “If you buy a new watch, you start looking at the watch and you see it in the mirror. Oh, my new watch, and you feel nice. But next week, it’s just your watch. It’s nothing special. But there are other things that are always with you. Knowledge, for example, is something that anybody can’t take away from you. For example, when you travel, when you go around the world, nobody can take that away from you.”

In leaving Iliana, I told her I felt like I had just met an old friend.

“I think people meet for strange reasons but always there is a valid hidden reason,” Iliana replied. “Maybe you needed me or I needed you. That´s a kind of magical realism.”

Since meeting Iliana, I have thought often about our exchange. It is encounters such as ours that fill my spirit and enrich me. Despite living on different continents and having different native tongues, we have walked in the same shoes—and away from situations we believed defined us in search of something unnameable we sensed was missing.

It can seem a lonely place when facing major forks in life’s road, and I can forget that whatever I may be moving away from, or toward, there are always kindred spirits marching along with me.